Memories on World Refugee Day – 1980, Laotian Refugee Camp, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

In 1980 I embarked on my second trip to Southeast Asia while a student. My official title was, “student missionary” but this was a humanitarian mission not a proselytizing one. My job was to hold Survival English and English as a Second Language classes in a refugee camp. I also taught refugees who knew a little English how to pass that knowledge on. I was chosen because I had spent a year between mid 1977 and mid 1978 in Balikpapan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo so I knew a bit about living in this part of Asia.

We were put up in a rundown house with no glass in the windows and only an urn with a ladle to bathe and wash up with. We did have mosquito nets but that is about all that kept the creepy crawlers away. Outside there were two pet primates a macaque monkey and a gibbon (an ape). They could work up quite a noisy cacophony when our yard was visited by Water Buffalo and other animals. I drove to work on a motorcycle. Here I am getting ready to head out:

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I jostled past the animals, people and vehicles on the road and arrive at the camp. The camp was divided into individual villages that seemed to be arranged by class. The poor farmers or fishermen had the most rundown part of the camp and escaped businessmen or government officials got the better areas. Each village arranged a classroom for us and we would travel from place to place providing language instruction as nearly all people in the camp would be going on to resettle in an English speaking country. Here I am in action:

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Here are some shots that will give you an idea about how the camp was set up and the wonderful people living there:

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All in all I had a rewarding time working with such wonderful people. What strikes me most looking back, was how happy everyone seemed to be despite there dire situation. As you can see this was particularly true of the children. I often wonder where they are now. I hope they found a better life and lasting happiness. I hope they were welcomed in the communities where they resettled. If anyone from that camp happens to read this I want to thank them for their hospitality and kindness all those years ago.

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About Fairy JerBear

A disabled, trans/agender fairy bear living in the American Southwest and passionate about social justice, the environment, Trans/ LGBTQIA+ equality and combating bullying.
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50 Responses to Memories on World Refugee Day – 1980, Laotian Refugee Camp, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

  1. Mei says:

    Hi, i was born in this camp in 1978, thank you for sharing your experience
    Now i live in France

  2. Vilay Dethluxay says:

    I just found this post after doing a random search to find out more about the refugee camp that I was born in – which is this camp in Ubon. The photos you’ve shared here along with your experience is beyond touching and has given me some missing pieces to a story I’m still trying to put together. I was born in this camp at the end of May of 1980 — so I was there when you arrived. My parents were Khanh and Bounchanh and I have an older sister, Orathay, who would have been 2 years old. We immigrated to America in 1981. You mentioned you often wonder how families are doing from this time in your life — well, I’m happy to tell you that although our journey to America as challenging (and still continues to be in certain ways for all of us, especially my parents) — we’re happy as a family unit and without the help of people like you and the many wonderful people who welcomed and helped us assimilate in America, it would have been much harder. So thank you from my entire family for being a good human being.

    • Thank you so much! I am always thrilled to hear from former camp residents. I remember babies being carried around by their moms, one of them might have been you. I remember the camp clinic run by another charity, they probably helped with your delivery. Again thanks for making my day

  3. Soutsakhone says:

    I was born there. Left when I was a few months. Thank you for helping our family’s out

  4. Souda says:

    My family and I were at this camp between 1979 and 1980. I want to personally thank you for your kindness and effort in making such a difference among us refugees. You are such a wonderful person! May you always be blessed! 😀

  5. mouanh says:

    My family and i live in that refugee camp untill 1980 and i want to say thank you for teaching us ..i now live in myrtle beach,sc.alot of children that make it alive doing really well here in u s a.

    • I’m so happy for you! I really appreciate your taking the time to comment, I learned a lot when I was there in the camp. You were btave, kind, thoughtful and loving people. I am glad your doing well and have children continuing their lives here in the United States.

      • Mark says:

        JerBear, just want to say thank you for teaching us, my family and I was in the camp from 1976 to 1980. We lived in the bamboo huts “goom 14″(district 14) in the center of the camp near the dirt bunkers(forts) look like marines training ground. I spent many hours flying kites from the top of those bunkers (we called mountains). I was 12 year old when we left the camp for NYC. I was given a nickname “Joy” means skinny in Laotian. I have many fond memories about the camp. Although the living conditions was hard with uncertainty future, I have to say I had the best time of my life while I was in the camp playing with other kids of my age, We would played with whatever we can find from rubber bands, marbles, tin can, coconut shells, crickets, fish, kites and etc….

      • Thanks got your comment! I think my most lingering impression was how much happiness there was despite the hardships. In the photos here you can see many smiling faces and children enjoying themselves. I remember children peering in the windows of the bamboo huts that were our classrooms. Everyone I made a silly face or exaggerated my teaching to make the classes interesting, the children would all laugh and giggle. There was on hut in the poorest section of the camp that was over a ditch. Once when it rained, we had water flowing through the classroom. There was even a duck that floated by! I hope you and your family are well. Thanks so much for brightening my day!

    • Vangh S says:

      Hi Mouanh,
      My family and I were also at the same camp, and relocated to Conway/Myrtle Beach, SC! NOT too many Laos family in Myrtle Beach…it wouldn’t surprise me if our families know each other! 🙂 Would love to hear from you if you get my reply. (vs.3vvr@gmail.com)

  6. Your welcome deeballer! I am so happy that people have found this page and have been able to connect with their past or that of family members who lived at The Upon Ratchithani Laotian Refugee Camp in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It would be fun to know if you and Amarillo had known each other. As you can see from the photos the children seemed to be happy and have fun despite living in a refugee camp. I often wonder what some of the people in the photos are doing now. Thanks for commenting!

  7. deeballer says:

    My family was there from 1978-1980. We were able to relocate to the USA on January 1980. My family met a few other families there and we were able to find some of them again in Omaha, NE. Thanks you for doing your part to help JerBear.

  8. Amarillo says:

    I was about 7 years old when my family left there in December ’79…we spent 2 years at this camp. Is there a way for me locate the names of people who spent time at this camp from ’77-’79. My parents are getting older and I’m just trying find my roots. Thank you for all you did for the refugees.

    • I’m sorry, I know of no list of camp residents. If there were such a list it would probably be at The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which coordinated things in the camp and arranged for refugees to be repatriated to the country that agreed to take them in. As for my service there, I am so glad I was asked to go help out. It was one of the most memorable and rewarding times of my life.

    • deeballer says:

      Hey, I was the same as as you when we were there and left about the same time period. I wonder if we ever played with one another when we were there.

  9. Brooke says:

    Thank you for the photos, it brings back the very little memory I had. I recall a story my mom told us about my brother, 7 years old at the time, sang over the microphone at the school, everyone could hear him singing. Do you recall seeing a school for children there? We arrived in America in March 1980. My family and I were at that camp. My family always referred it to “soon”. Always wondered where it was. I was 5 years old.

    • I do recall a school sat the edge of the camp. Your family left before I arrived in June of 1980 but I’m sure the camp stayed more or less the same. One of my most vivid memories was how happy the children were. I tried to make my English as a Second Language lessons fun and I remember children looking on the windows and doors of the bamboo huts we used for classrooms and laughing when ever I was a bit silly. I am happy your family successfully settled in America. Thanks for your comments!

  10. TheTinyGypsy says:

    Hi, my parents were in this camp from ’76-’79. You mentioned in this article this was your second trip in ’80, did you happen to be there during this time period??

    • It was my second trip to Southeast Asia but my first to Thailand and Ubon. I spent a year between 1977 and 1978 in Balikpapan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo. I’m glad your parents were able to relocate. 3 years is a long time to spend in a refugee camp.

  11. Hi Dear, are you truly visiting this website on a regular basis, if so
    afterward you will definitely get good know-how.

  12. Youtube.com says:

    I don’t leave a comment, however I browsed some of the responses on Memories on World Refugee Day
    – 1980, Laotian Refugee Camp, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand | JerBear’s Queer World News, Views & More From The City Different – Santa Fe, NM.
    I do have 2 questions for you if it’s allright. Is it only me or do a
    few of these remarks come across as if they are written by brain dead visitors?
    😛 And, if you are posting on additional social sites, I would like to keep up with anything
    new you have to post. Could you make a list of every one of all your
    shared pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook
    page or twitter feed?

    • I prefer not to comment on other’s intelligence. As for social media the only public social media is my twitter feed which posts links to my blog posts, highlights causes I care about and an occasional personal comment here and there. The feed is displayed in the right hand column below the comment links. The Twitter handle is @JerBearSantaFe

  13. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a
    sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her
    ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside
    and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but
    I had to tell someone!

  14. Nookie Somsanuk says:

    I was born in that camp, i have pictures still 🙂 thank you for sharing this, although i dont remember much since I was so young. I dont know what part we lived, but my father was a principle and a doctor who delivered babies. I will have to show my father this! i’d love to learn more and maybe go back and teach as well.

    • Nookie Somsanuk says:

      I was born 1987, my two older brothers were born 1984, and 1982. How long were you there for?

      • I was only there for half a year from June – December, 1980. I returned to complete my college education. I graduated in May of 1981. I am surprised there haven’t been more posts about the camp. I know there were a fair number of people working/volunteering there.

    • Sorry, for the delay in approving this comment. I didn’t notice it waiting. I bet you are proud of your father. He sounds like a wonderful man. I know that most refugees in Thailand now are from Myanmar/Burma. I am sure they could use help. If you want to teach Thais there are probably plenty of opportunities.

  15. Ubon says:

    I was born in that camp and that’s how I got my name. All I know is I was born in Ubon Camp in Thailand. I’m trying to find out the City, County, State, and Country. I know the city is Ubon and the Country is Thailand. Would like to know more. My family was there Sept 1980

    • I was at the camp in September of 1980. The camp was on the outskirts of the town of Ubon Ratchithani. The camp was divided into different sections which seemed to be associated with former occupations and how much money people made before escaping. So some parts were nicer than others The majority of people lived in simple bamboo huts although some lived in old army barracks that had been converted into housing for families. There were several organizations helping people all managed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which also helped arrange for repatriation to countries welcoming refugees. I wonder if I saw you as a baby? I certainly am glad your family made it out okay. For more information on the city and province check out this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubon_Ratchathani

  16. Pingback: World Refugee Day | JerBear's Queer World News, Views & More From The City Different – Santa Fe, NM

  17. Kham says:

    I think I was in that camp. I’m actually not sure. My dad passed there and my mom doesn’t speak of Laos or Thailand. I’ve recently been on a bit of a quest to find my roots. You apparently know much more about that time and place than I do. I would love to be able to pick your brains.
    Thanks,
    Kham (khamron78@yahoo.com)

    • I would be happy to email you. Expect me to contact you soon. I have divulged much of what I know in the replies to previous messages but I may be able to help. I am wondering if it might be a good idea to set up a simple website so former refugees and their. children could contact each other.

  18. Reblogged this on JerBear's Queer World News, Views & More From The City Different – Santa Fe, NM and commented:

    One of my most popular posts ever. This describes my volunteer work in a Laotian Refugee Camp in 1980. Read the comments to see the fascinating feedback I’ve gotten on this post.

  19. noyburgera@gmail.com says:

    Hello, JerBear. I am thrilled to have found your blog and this entry in particular. I was born in Camp Ubon in October 1980. I wonder if you had met my father, Inh Souriyavong, who spoke English at the camp. In January 1981, my family, which included mother, father, 3 year old sister, grandmother, grandfather (who was a Vietnam War soldier fighting on the American side in Laos), two aunts and an uncle caught a plane to California where we were relocated to New Orleans. I am living in New Orleans and find it perfect that we ended up in a French influenced American city. Thank you for your efforts at the camp. I hope to visit Ubon someday; perhaps later this year when I visit Laos for the first time as a volunteer translator with an organization that provides healthcare and healthcare education for women in remote villages in Southeast, Asia. Cheers, Chanthala

    • noyburger@gmail.com says:

      Correction: My grandfather was a soldier in the Secret War in Laos.

    • Hello and thanks for stopping by! This page is shaping up to be one of the more popular on the blog. I wonder how people react when they see the main content. Anyway, I am not sure if I met your father. There was one camp resident who did help me out and was very friendly. I also taught a class for English speakers so they could turn around and teach their friends. How interesting to know your family left shortly after I did. You are no doubt proud of their sacrifices. I found the Laotian people to be warm, kind, easy to laugh and very friendly. I am glad you are sort of paying it forward by going overseas to do volunteer work yourself. I am sure Ubon has changed drastically. I have looked at via Google Earth and found it quite different. If you can coincide a visit with the Candle Festival you would be in for quite a treat. Th things they can do with wax up to 2 – 3 meters high is amazing. Also a half days ride by train takes you to Surin where they have The Elephant Roundup. Please send back photos if you do visit Ubon. Give my love to your family and the whole Laotian community. – JerBear

  20. Hello Jerbear,
    I am doing some research about Camp Ubon and I was wondering if you had any pictures of the buildings or the camp as a whole. My husbands family is from Thailand. His aunt and her new husband and their three children moved to camp Ubon from a relatively safe town in northwestern Thailand because they wanted to come to America. They had a baby born at the camp in 1979. They were sponsored by my husbands mother, a new U.S. citizen, and they moved to America. I would like to know how daily life went at the camp. My goal is to write a story/book about their experiences for all the children that follow them. I can ask the aunt who lived in the camp but her English is hard to understand. Do you know of any books written about the Camp experience? Thanks so much Jerbear. PS. I used to live in Alamorgordo for a few years working in the Air Force. Glad to see all the peace and love up in the beautiful Santa Fe.

    • I don’t believe I have any photos of major buildings in the camp. I may have a couple shots that aren’t on this page but most of the good ones are here. I do not know of any books either, I’m sorry to say. I do remember a good deal about the camp and could give you my perspective. It was an intense experience as a young man. Most of the buildings were simple bamboo huts. There were some old barracks from the sites former use as an airfield during the Vietnam war. They were divided up into small units for families. Save The Children (as I remember) ran the clinic out of a small wooden building and an open-sided building that served as a clinic. I recall.one other wooden building but the rest, including the one used by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees where I ran a class.

      The most surprising aspect was how the camp was divided up by class. On the far ends of the camp lived poor fishermen and farmers. One of the huts I used to teach in was really dilapidated. In fact once during a rainstorm a stream flowed between me and my students. While I was teaching a duck floated by much to my surprise.

      The people were all very sweet and grateful for my help. In fact I have seldom seen happier children which seems odd. I l know their lives were tough but but they were resilient. Their was some violence – once an agent of the Laos secret police exchanged gunfire with someone, (I forget the details). But overall it was a safe camp overall.

      I’d be happy to answer questions. You might want to set up a website to gather info. I know this page has gotten lots of views. WordPress shows how many views a particular site gets in a day and this has had quite a few since the comment left by the woman working in London but who grew up in France. I surmise immigrants have shared the link with each other. This is why I think a site might bring people who want to share their story. If you give me an email address I will email you back so we can communicate.

      Hugs,
      JerBear

      • My email is holliemcdonald@bellsouth.net. I would love to email back and forth about anything you know about Camp Ubon.
        I just read about your cat Angel. I had a wonderful cat that got sick and wandered away and died. That cat was blind, incontinent, and mean at the end but I loved that cat so. I see black and white cats now and I know that it’s my cat…. So sorry for your loss.

  21. guillaume says:

    hi! thanks for these pictures. I was looking for some pictures as my mum and dad who were in that camp said it was expensive to do pictures.I was born in October 1979 in that camp.My parents were sent to Strasbourg in France where i grew up. Now i am a successful dispensing optician in London! 😉 Guillaume born Somchit

    • Hello Guillaume/Somchit,
      Thanks for commenting! So, you had your first birthday while I was there. I even remember the clinic in the camp which might have assisted in your birth. I often wonder what became of all the wonderful people I met in the camp. You and your family have my deepest respect for all you went through. I am surprised more people haven’t posted photos but I guess not everyone who volunteered took pictures or hung on to the ones they took. I love that your now an optician. I need a check up and new glasses – too bad London is so far from here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA! I thank you for commenting! You have made me very happy. 😀
      Hugs,
      Jerry nickname JerBear

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